Sunday 13 October 2013

Counting Down to the Man Booker: Day Five - The Lowland

Day Five of The Coome Cottage Countdown - and we're almost done! Here is book five, and our thoughts.

A said: I really enjoyed this book and of the final Booker 6 it was the one that most held my attention and was most believable. It's a story of two Indian brothers and their lives over the whole span of the eldest, Subash's, years. It covers life in both political and desperate Calcuttta and the expansive isolation and anonymity of life in the USA. its not very demanding emotionally, despite the intense subjects - power, regret and loss, compromise, identity, violence - and i did feel remote and uninvolved in much of the characters thoughts and lives.

It does have other major flaws - after the violent event that the whole of the book leads up to in the middle of the story it does becom more meandery, domestic and slightly less believable. The playing out of the end of Sabash's and Gauri's lives are not really of great interest compared to the emotion and drive and expectation of youth. 

However of all the bookers this is probably the one I enjoyed most but yet I think it will not win and will not really survive the test of literary time.

E said: In stark contrast to the last Man Booker Shortlister I read (Harvest) this book is set, not over seven days, but over seventy years or so! Quite a change of pace!

I thought that I had never heard of Lahiri before, but her style seemed familiar and I looked her up and realised that I had read a set of successful short stories by her entitled "Unaccustomed Earth." I much prefer novels to short stories, so expected to enjoy this a lot more.

The Lowland tells the story of a number of characters, mostly focusing around Subhash. He is the elder of two brothers but Udayan, his younger sibling, is the bolder, more passionate. The story commences in Calcutta in a period of Indian history that I am not familiar with, focusing around the Naxalite movement, a rebellion attempting to eradicate poverty and inequality. It doesn't mention India's caste system specifically, and I wonder whether this is a region-to-region thing, and Calcutta was less extreme in this respect? I'm not sure. Anyway, Udayan becomes very involved in the movement, whilst Subhash pulls back, creating a gulf between the brothers, previously so entwined. Subhash moves to America to study, starting a relationship with an American woman, who leaves him to return to her ex-husband with whom she has child. There is sparse correspondance from Udayan in Calcutta, until a telegram arrives from his parents telling Subhash that Udayan is dead, and he must return immediately.

Udayan was killed by the police for, at this point, slightly unclear reasons. No one will speak to Subhash directly about the day except for Udayan's widow, Gauri, who turns out to be pregnant. As is customary in India, she and Udayan had moved in with his parents, but the life she is now leading is intolerable in Subhash's eyes: his parents never agreed with the marriage as they did not arrange it, and are treating her as a servant. To rescue her, he suggests that they marry and move to America.

Here begins the next section of the novel. Gauri gives birth to a daughter, Bela, in America and her and Subhash fall into a sort of domesticity. But Gauri is unhappy with her ties to this daughter who only reminds her of her dead love, responsibilities that she never wanted. She is not a natural or willing mother. When Subhash and Bela return to India upon the death of Subhash's father, Gauri takes the opportunity to leave.

Bela grows, and grows apart from Subhash, much to his devastation. He loves her, truly, as a father - and she does not know the truth of her parentage. They had always been so close, their shared bond making up for the lack of connection that Gauri forged with her daughter. But Bela shuts her father out - whether to punish him, her mother or herself is uncertain. She moves away and does not leave addresses for Subhash. She becomes a nomad, no true place to call her home, fighting for local equalities and working on labouring farms. Subhash is reminded in her of Udayan, of his spirit, his vitality and wish for things to be different.

The book culminates in a sort of reconcilation. Bela continues to visit Subhash on occasions until she becomes pregnant and asks to move back in with him in Rhode Island; Subhash eventually tells her the truth of her parentage and she accepts it. Subhash remarries. Gauri returns to see her daughter (and deliver divorce papers that they had never formalised) and is rebuffed, but later Bela sends her a letter explaining that her daughter would like more contact, although she does not know the truth about Gauri's identity. And Gauri? She returns once more to Calcutta, and we learn the full truth of the events culminating in Udayan's death, the secret she has kept inside her all these years.

That was a long synopsis - but the novel encompasses entire generations of lives! It is a slow moving, ponderous book. It does not feel like a book that you can speed through. Lahiri's characters and even her settings are suffused with regret, with loss, with sadness, but also with a sort of beauty, a poise - they feel dignified. They are also credible; Lahiri's dialogue, interaction and thought patterns are entirely believable. It is, at times, a very solopsistic book on the part of each individual character - they all contain some nature of that quality, they all feel as though the world should work out the way they want it to. None get their wishes. You cannot read this book without a hollow feeling of sadness from almost start to finish.

It is also worth noting that this another book that does not use quotation marks to denote speech, but I hardly noticed it here (unlike in We Need New Names). I think if it isn't noticeable, then it must be appropriate - when you notice something, it is either because it is oustandingly brilliant, or really doesn't work. If it remains unnoticed, then it is quietly working, an understatement but one that fits. This can be seem to apply to the novel as a whole.

Although it isn't a page turner, you do want to finish it, but I had a sense that it could have been shorter. I'm not sure how exactly - but it felt like more than a novel and I kept on feeling that a culmination must be coming. The plot was relatively gentle for the most part, and I expected it to continue in this vein. Gauri's revelation at the end felt almost out of sync with this - it didn't feel like the kind of book to include a major change of realisation. It almost felt outside of the book, a coda, an accessory. It could have been a short story in itself.

It seems odd that someone who is so well known for the quality of her short stories has taken on such an epic subject for this novel. To write each requires very different skills, but I think that Lahiri has managed both.

I did enjoy The Lowland, but I almost felt there was too much of it. It was an epic story in length, but not so much in its events; at times it felt almost mundane. I enjoyed it much more at the time and unfortunately read some reviews of it afterwards that spoilt it retrospectively somewhat.

I am glad to have read it, but it would not be my winner. 

J said: I have to admit to not having finished Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, but it's not because I'm not enjoying it.

I guess I would say this is my favourite sort of novel: about ordinary people put into some challenging situations, and with plenty of detail about their backgrounds so that I can feel that I understand why they behave the way they do, without the author having to stop and explain. It has the added interest of exotic locations: mid 20th century Calcutta and 1970s onwards Rhode Island, which is a new area for me. I like the characters and feel that the author does too, and so want good outcomes for them, and feel sad when these don't happen.

So is it my Booker winner for this year? No, I'm certain that it isn't, and that's because it lacks quite the compelling quality that this sort of novel can achieve, and perhaps also because the language isn't striking. I realise I haven't noticed the language at all as I read, and although that's a lot better than being brought up short by objecting to the way something is said, I also feel disappointed.

Back to reading!

And tomorrow will be the last day and the last book! It's been great reading and reviewing them - this is the best Booker Shortlist in a good few years.

For our previous posts:

Day One - A Testament of Mary 
Day Two - We Need New Names  
Day Three - Harvest
Day Four - The Luminaries

See you tomorrow! 

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